I would never trivialize the birth of a child. For me, the birth of my two children remains the most awe inspiring and amazing events of my life. There is nothing I have ever experienced before or since that even remotely compares. I remember thinking on each occasion, There really must be a God. Something so incredible seemed beyond man’s doing.
For a writer, the birth of a novel shares many similarities to the experience of having a child. I should clarify that I come at this from the perspective of a man. I have no doubt my wife, and other women out there, would harpoon me for comparing the “birth” of a novel to the “birth” of a baby, and rightfully so.
But for me the birth of a book, and I’ve had this experience 8 times, is always the same.
I started My Sister’s Grave two years ago when I read an article about hydroelectric dams in Washington being removed to restore the natural habitats and spawning grounds of the wild Salmon. The article explained that when the dams were created lakes formed upstream, flooding land and providing a ready supply of water. When the dams were removed, decades later, the waters receded. And I thought, “What if?” What if when the waters receded they found a body? And what if that body belonged to someone who went missing twenty years earlier, someone deeply loved not only by her family, but by her community?
Because I was switching publishers and starting a new series, a police procedural, I needed more time to research and develop the characters. For two years I suffered through the good days and the bad days at the computer, enduring the solitary process, questioning my talent, warding off the inner critic that always says I’ll never figure out the plot problems, never solve the character’s motivation, never get to the end. And then that fateful day comes and I write the best two words in every writer’s vocabulary.
But I’m far from finished. In truth, now the hard part comes – rewriting.
I don’t know who said, “Writing is rewriting.” Some attribute the quote to E.B. White. Whoever said it, no truer words were ever spoken. After a sufficient amount of time away from the manuscript I go back to the computer and begin the arduous task of editing. I write and I delete and I cut and I past and I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite some more, all the while fighting off that inner critic and self-doubt. Slowly, with each pass through the manuscript, Tracy Crosswhite, my protagonist, begins to take shape alongside the plot. With each rewrite I learn a little bit more about her, and about how she has suffered after her sister’s disappearance. And then, when I can rewrite no more, I send it off to my editor.
Months pass as the book goes through a conceptual edit, then a copy edit, then a line edit and finally a grammar and punctuation edit. Finally, my work is done. I get to the point when I can no longer stand to look at the manuscript, when I just want it out of me and delivered out into the world.
October 31, Halloween, the day before the official launch of My Sister’s Grave, I pace my office, take phone calls, receiving gifts and kind emails and tweets wishing me luck and success. My colleagues at Schlemlein Goetz Fick & Scruggs, always supportive of my work, wish me success as I leave for the day. I get home to find a package waiting for me. It is the right shape, rectangular. It is the right weight. I think back to my first novel, The Jury Master. I’d waited eight years to see that book in print. The day it came my family was running in four different directions. I opened the envelope and held my novel. My wife and kids looked over my shoulder. Then I set it down and said we needed to get going to wherever we needed to be. It was my son who put it in perspective.
Just nine, Joseph said, “Dad, you’ve waited a long time for this. We should celebrate.”
Sometimes we need our kids to slow life down and put it into perspective. We went out to dinner that night and we brought the new book with us. We studied the cover and the back flap. We analyzed my picture (not great according to my daughter) and we read the opening chapter aloud. When I got home I put that book on my shelf in my room alongside my non-fiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. I stared at it, caught myself sneaking glances at it when I passed by, honestly humbled that I’d completed it. That first edition remains on my shelf.
So, October 31, 2014 I opened the package and I set eyes on my eighth novel, My Sister’s Grave. At dinner, before we headed out to Halloween parties, we analyzed and inspected the book just as we had the prior seven. It never gets old.
I put the copy of My Sister’s Grave on the same shelf as the other first copies of my novels. People ask which of my books is my favorite. I tell them, “Each is special to me in its own way. I could never choose a favorite.”Just like my kids.